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Editorial﹕Tensions in the Middle East

【明報專訊】LAST Thursday the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a US drone with a surface‑to‑air missile. In response US president Donald Trump ordered military retaliatory action, only to call it off at the eleventh hour, saying instead he did not believe Iran's strike had been "intentional". But the US has stepped up its sanctions against Iran nevertheless, launching cyberattacks to paralyse Iran's system of weaponry. With tensions rising in the Middle East, global oil prices have rocketed again.

Since Donald Trump came to power, the US's policies towards the Middle East have undergone significant changes. It withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and imposed sanctions against the country again, issuing a full blockade of the export of Iranian oil. It has fully co‑opted countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia to build a "Middle‑East NATO", pitching its weapons at the countries and safeguarding Israel's unilateral security. It is also pushing ahead with the "deal of the century", trying to resolve conflicts between Israel and Palestine with money. It is generally believed that such policy changes made by Trump are aimed at drumming up support from Jewish organisations and currying favour with arms manufacturers, as they are both his trump cards for his 2020 reelection campaign.

Though his policies are heavily influenced by neo‑conservatism, Trump is not a neo‑conservative himself. He is a shrewd businessman. He invited neo‑conservatives like John Bolton to the cabinet to take advantage of their radicality, but he does not want to be hamstrung by them. His strategy in principle is to let his advisers conduct diplomatic arson all around the world — or even issue threats of war — to frighten the US's adversaries into submission so that they will sign those humiliating agreements. From the Sino‑US trade war to the conflicts between the US and Iran, the US has been employing such "maximum pressure" tactics. The problem is that such threats do not work all the time. With the relationship between the US and Iran over the past 40 years, it is clear that the US does want to strike Iran, but it cannot do so. It is particularly worried about the consequences. The Tehran authorities have been able to negotiate the US's borderline with remarkable accuracy, responding to the US's bluffs with their own.

Currently the US has a strained relationship with many world powers and international organisations. In the Asia‑Pacific region it has an ongoing trade war with China. In Europe there is a confrontation with Russia. The tariff wars have won the US enemies all around the world and caused incessant bickering with them. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars cost US taxpayers six trillion US dollars. As a businessman, Trump understands very well that if an all‑out war with Iran breaks out, the cost will only be higher. It is difficult for the US's finances as they stand to support an all‑out war with Iran.

The Iran crisis is another crisis manufactured by the Trump administration itself. It did not exist before the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. The Trump administration's attempt to pressure the Iranian regime to crumble is not realistic. The two countries should try to resolve the problem through diplomatic negotiations. "It takes who tied the bell to untie it," as the saying goes. If the US is willing to relax sanctions against Iran, there might be a way out of the current situation. If the US and Iran continue such brinkmanship, it will be impossible to rule out a head‑on conflict. If things develop in such a way, the whole world — not just the Middle East — will be seriously harmed.

明報社評 2019.06.24﹕中東局勢劍拔弩張 美伊須防擦槍走火

上周四,伊朗伊斯蘭革命衛隊用地對空導彈擊落一架美軍無人偵察機,美國總統特朗普一度下令展開軍事報復,雖然他在最後一分鐘叫停行動,又改口稱相信伊朗不是「有意」,但美方還是升級制裁措施,展開網絡攻擊來癱瘓伊朗武器系統,令中東局勢劍拔弩張,國際油價再度飈升。

特朗普上台以來,美國的中東政策就出現重大調整,先退出伊朗核協議,後重啟制裁,全面封鎖伊朗石油出口;全面偏袒以色列、沙特等國,建立「中東版北約」,推銷軍火之餘,維護以色列單邊安全,並推動以金錢解決以巴衝突的「世紀方案」。一般相信,特朗普的這種政策調整,一是為爭取國內猶太集團的支持,二是為討好軍工集團,因為猶太集團和軍工集團是他爭取2020年連任的兩大王牌。

特朗普決策雖受新保守主義強烈影響,但他本人並非新保守主義者,而是精明的商人。他吸納博爾頓等新保守主義人士入閣,主要是為借其鋒芒而非受其左右。其基本策略就是,讓幕僚四處點火,甚至發出戰爭威脅,以震懾對手,逼其簽「城下之盟」。從中美貿易戰到美伊衝突,都是這種極限施壓的路數,問題是這種恫嚇策略並不總能奏效。從美伊關係40年來的脈絡分析,美國不是不想打伊朗,而是打不了,更擔心殘局難收。德黑蘭對美國這一底線拿揑準確,便以「虛張聲勢」對「虛張聲勢」。

當前,美國與多個大國和國際組織關係緊張,在亞太有與中國的貿易戰,在歐洲有與俄羅斯的對抗,關稅戰四面樹敵,與盟國齟齬不斷。阿富汗和伊拉克的兩場戰爭,已花費美國納稅人6萬億美元,以特朗普的商人本性,深知若與伊朗爆發全面戰爭,付出的代價只多不少。以目前美國的財政狀况看,難以支撐一場與伊朗的全面戰爭。

伊朗危機是特朗普政府「人造危機」的又一例證:在它退出伊核協議前,這一危機並不存在。特朗普政府想透過施壓導致伊朗政權垮台的設想,並不現實,美伊應尋求外交談判解決問題。解鈴還須繫鈴人,若美國願意考慮放寬對伊朗制裁,局面或有轉圜餘地。如果美伊繼續玩這種鬥大膽遊戲,雙方最終正面對撼的可能始終不能排除。不幸如此,不僅中東地區,全世界都將深受其害。

■Glossary

at the eleventh hour﹕the last moment before sth important happens

shrewd﹕clever at understanding and making judgements about a situation

brinkmanship﹕the activity, especially in politics, of getting into a situation that could be very dangerous in order to frighten people and make them do what you want

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